If you have fond memories of someone carrying your books for you, or backbreaking recollections of hauling a pile of textbooks home from school, you might get nostalgic when someone suggests that the end of textbooks is near. On one hand, those beginning-of-year textbooks seem like a rite of passage that generations of kids have gone through; on the other, it just makes sense (especially if you’ve seen an undersized second-grader bowed under the weight of a giant backpack full of texts).

 

As we move into a "less stuff, more content"-rich future, that goes for the old standbys of education too. Innovative teachers and school systems are looking closely at using technology in the classroom, and in some cases, deciding that the learning gains are worth the investment in electronics. Some schools have crunched the numbers and think that in the long term, electronic devices may well be less expensive too.

 

Preston L. Coppels, director of instructional services for Loudoun County Public Schools in Ashburn, Va., told Scholastic Magazine of his district’s interest in e-readers: “The textbook is no longer the Holy Grail.”

 

The iPad is an especially popular draw for educators, since its flat-lying setup allows students to use it and make eye contact with teachers at the same time (unlike laptops); it has a large, easy-to-use touch screen; and it can be preloaded with applications that are specific to class topics (like Shakespeare or algebra apps). Some apps even allow students to manipulate 2-D shapes, which can be a boon for chemistry, physics and math classes, and others allow students to easily look words up in the dictionary, or come with additional video instruction or animations. Apple has also designed programs like iBook (already in its second iteration) and has partnered with textbook publishers to “Reinvent the Textbook.”

 

The New York Times reported that a number of school districts throughout the United States are using iPads and their associated apps to teach, usually in high schools, but occasionally in classes down to kindergarten. Included among the districts are New York City public schools, with over 2,000 orders placed.

 

“More than 200 Chicago public schools applied for 23 district-financed iPad grants totaling $450,000. The Virginia Department of Education is overseeing a $150,000 iPad initiative that has replaced history and Advanced Placement biology textbooks at 11 schools. And six middle schools in four California cities (San Francisco, Long Beach, Fresno and Riverside) are teaching the first iPad-only algebra course, developed by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,” reports the Times. Much of this financing comes from the federal government in the form of “Race to the Top” educational grants, which school districts are using to buy iPads, computers and apps (of the over 5,000 applications available, about 1,000 are free).

 

Early reports on how much these technologies affect students' learning and test scores are mixed. On one hand, most of those who teach future teachers remind that there’s no substitute for the basics, which they say can be glossed over when technology is brought into the classroom. On the other, some studies have shown higher scores for kids with iPads and other devices, and teachers seem to like the flexibility they have when using them. Alex Curtis, headmaster of the private Morristown-Beard School in New Jersey, told the New York Times, “It has brought individual technology into the classroom without changing the classroom atmosphere.” E-readers and iPads can also allow interactivity; kids can look at teacher-manipulated artworks (for a discussion of chiaroscuro in an art class, for example), or quickly rework math problems, or save a confusing step in an equation after a teacher has moved on to the next lesson. And even very young learners can use the iPad to get that individual attention (a book read over and over to them) that might be missing at home or in a crowded classroom.

 

Kindles, Nooks and other e-readers have also been gaining in popularity, especially for English classes: “For the longest time, distribution of reading materials has been highly inefficient in getting the right material to the right student at the right moment,” Daniel Witz, a language arts teacher at Lake Bluff Middle School, near Chicago, tells Scholastic Magazine. “You have maybe four books of a fiction title; if a fifth kid wants to be part of that circle, you don’t have that copy,” he says.

 

Elizabeth Hilts, an adjunct professor at Fairfield University, says her students use all kinds of technology in her classroom. She says online resources combined with the devices can be a boon: “I suggest that students use such online resources as etutoring.com — which lets students submit papers to a tutor for specific feedback (but no “corrections”) — and the online bibliography-maker, easybib.com, which helps them create 'works cited' pages,” Hilts says.

 

Electronic devices are only going to become more ubiquitous, and it’s likely that we can’t even imagine exactly how we will be using them for education in the future. We’ll know more about how well these devices and apps work — and how they’re best used in classrooms only by trying them out — and maybe letting the kids tell us what works best for them.

 

Check out this video of first graders using the iPad while they are learning to read:

 

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